What is the holy grail in the music industry?
That depends on who you ask, but many musicians will tell you that it’s landing a contract with a label.
Getting signed can be a worthwhile goal. But because of some of the restrictions it often comes along with, it might limit your flexibility and your ability to make important decisions regarding your creative direction and career.
Did you know that unsigned musicians have access to numerous opportunities signed musicians don’t? Here are but a handful to consider.
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1. Keep 100% Of Your Profit
Perhaps the most attractive aspect of being an independent is that no one else has a finger in your pie. You can keep 100% of your profit.
Now, just so we’re clear, this is how I define profit:
Revenue – Expenses = Profit
Just because you aren’t signed to a label doesn’t mean you won’t have expenses. But profit is the money left over after you’ve accounted for all your costs.
In the case of Imogen Heap, she says she negotiated a deal where she gets to keep 18% of the total money generated from her music. I understand that labels do a lot of work, but what exactly entitles them to over 80% of the profit? Some labels don’t even promote your music for you – you might have to do all the work anyway!
If you like to be in control of your destiny, then you’ll like being an independent. There are many non-household name artists that earn six figures in their music career. And simple math shows that might be a better deal than you could get with a label.
For instance, what’s 18% of $500,000? It’s $90,000. So, you could be earning six figures as a signed artist and not even see six figures for your effort. And that’s if a label considers you profitable enough to keep you.
I’m not saying it’s easy to make it happen as an independent artist. All I’m saying is that you keep what you earn, and for some, that’s a better deal.
2. Sell Your Music Using As Many Channels As Possible
With many listeners moving over to streaming, selling your music isn’t anywhere near as profitable as it once was. But if you’re an independent, nothing is stopping you from innovating.
For instance, Gumroad has an affiliate function built right into it. You could encourage other people to help you sell your music by giving away a small commission.
Furthermore, by packaging up your music with bonuses, you could sell it at a higher price for diehard fans. You could include things like artwork and photos that weren’t used in the album artwork, extra songs, acoustic versions of the same songs, music videos, interviews with the producer or engineer, a making-of feature, guitar tabs, and so on.
Now, whether to immediately release your music to streaming sites or to only release it after you’ve moved a certain number of CD units is a hotly debated topic. Some artists boycott streaming altogether. I can’t tell you what to do. But one thing you can do as an independent is pursue as many opportunities as you want. Unless you have an exclusive agreement with a distributor or online store, you can use as many channels as you want to sell your music, including brick-and-mortar businesses. And many platforms, like Bandcamp, let you set your own price too.
If you’re signed to a label, this is all handled on their end to ensure maximum profit for their own purposes. The artist is usually the last to be paid.
3. Decide On Your Creative Vision
The homogenization of popular music continues. Have a listen to today’s top 40. Are there more than three or four songs there, or is it just the same songs with different artist names attached to them?
You can be the judge of that, but I will say this. Labels need their artists to be profitable. Plus, no one wants to take a pay cut. If you made a certain amount of money for them last year, they’ll want to see the same figures or better this year.
So, can you expect to retain artistic integrity when the labels are more interested in keeping revenue numbers high than in the quality of music that’s going out the doors? Overwhelmingly, no.
Sure, there is the occasional surprise. Think of the success of Amy Winehouse, or even “Uptown Funk.” There was a precedent for both types of music, but funk was as its height in the 70s, and jazz in the 50s! These examples seem to be the exception rather than the rule.
As an independent, you can decide what kind of music you want to make. There is an audience for everything, but typically, you must go and find them. If you’re willing to work hard and get out there, you can achieve a level of success as an independent, and you get to do it on your own terms too.
4. Choose How To Brand & Market Yourself
Unfortunately, some labels don’t know how to handle certain acts. Think of They Might Be Giants. They have a definite esthetic, and their music isn’t for everyone.
They got signed to a label, and at first, things were great. But the key decision makers – the people who understood They Might Be Giants and what their music was about – left. Since no one at the label knew how to handle them anymore, their opportunities suddenly diminished.
I know, a label seems like this magical place where everything goes well, but unfortunately that’s not the case. Acts that aren’t profitable are dumped quicker than they ever were before. Few people will be on your side, believing that you will come into your own somewhere down the line. Development deals are mostly unheard of.
As an independent artist, the person that needs to know the most about what you do is you. Then, maybe your team members – your manager, promoter, publicist, and so on.
If you understand your music and who your fans are, no one can brand and promote you as well as you can. You can create a more loyal fan base quicker if you know what you’re doing.
5. Perform & Tour When You Want
Sure, major tours can get cancelled. And some signed musicians do have say over when they tour and when they don’t.
But many of them are driven like slaves to pay back their advances, generate revenue for the label, or play as many shows as possible to meet marketing and sales targets. It’s grueling.
This isn’t to say that you won’t put a lot of work into booking shows and touring as an independent artist. In some ways, you might end up working harder.
But at least you can do it on your own schedule, one that makes sense for you, your health, your energy levels, your audience, your budget, and so on.
And, if you’re particularly ambitious, maybe you’ll choose to challenge the status quo and tour more than any professional act does. A label might let you do that too, but maybe not. They would likely give you some speech about market saturation.
The key point here is that you would have autonomy. If you were signed, you might not be able to perform and tour when you want, and be forced to perform and tour when you don’t want to.
6. Work With Who You Want
When you finally land that elusive label deal, what’s to say you’re going to be working with people you like and understand you? That’s the dream, of course, and it’s a nice dream, but it doesn’t mean that’s what’s going to happen when you finally get there.
And even people that might charm you upfront could turn out to be dishonest. Hey, it happened to the Backstreet Boys and ‘N SYNC. To be fair, it seems like things worked out for them.
The point is that you can choose your publicist, tour manager, promoter, producer, or engineer if you're unsigned. You can work with people you like. A working relationship isn’t all about whether you like who you’re working with, because results are important too, but a lot of things tend to smooth over when the relationship is good to begin with.
You might have some control over this as a signed artist. And after you have a proven track record, you might gain more control over your career. But getting to that point is dubious at best.
Working with who you want also encompasses local acts you want to tour with, partnerships you want to build with other artists and businesses, sponsorship deals, licensing deals, and so on. Again, the sky is the limit if you don’t have any exclusive commitments. You can create as many deals as you want, and you can even dictate the terms.
7. Make Your Own Schedule
Nothing is done in a vacuum in a label environment. Everything is intentional, and all projects have a deadline. Is there some flexibility? There always is, but it might be limited.
Once a show is booked, you’re committed to it. Once a recording session has been planned, you better show up on time. Autograph signings? Guest appearances? Radio interviews? You better be at those too, and there might even be people making sure you are.
As a signed artist, you are effectively an employee of the label. If that’s what you want, that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with that. Some people like structure. Some people like everything to be planned so they don’t have to think about it.
The life of a signed artist can be demanding. It’s understandable – the label is trying to give you the greatest chance at success possible. But this doesn’t mean they’re obligated to have reasonable expectations.
As an independent artist, you can make your own schedule. You can make it as flexible or as challenging as you want. You don’t have to accept anyone else’s timeline or pace. You can go slower, faster, whatever works for you. Ultimately, it’s consistency that brings results, so if you’re consistent, getting things done, and doing the right things, I don’t care too much what your schedule looks like.
You can choose when to record, rehearse, play shows, promote, or anything else. You can also decide on how much time to spend on each. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword to be sure, because if you aren’t disciplined, and you waste time on activity that isn’t productive, you have only yourself to blame. But the upside is that you can tailor your schedule to match your goals and priorities.
Is going independent the best decision you could make? That depends on what your goals are.
Some artists want to work with a label, and wouldn’t have it any other way. Others are fiercely independent, and can’t stand others taking away their control.
There are pros and cons to both routes. If you don’t have a label working for you, either you have to do all the work, or you have to bring on a team to help you make it happen. And hiring people and building a team isn’t always a walk in the park either.
But if you work with a label, you might not have much control over what you do, and you might not get to keep much of the money either. Super-stardom is always a possibility, but it’s just that – a possibility. You aren’t guaranteed anything. And what you might consider to be a modest or decent success might be a failure in the eyes of a label.
Meanwhile, a label might also handle a good chunk of the marketing, accounting, and legal work that needs to be done. You could potentially get the business side of your career handled.
You can have a career with or without a label, and there are no rules. I tend to make up my mind as opportunities present themselves. While it can be helpful to think about what you would do in a specific situation before something happens, you don’t truly know until you’re presented with an offer. And if the offer looks bad when it finally arrives, would you have the guts to reject it and wait for a new one?